Islamism and Islamist Movement into a Historical Perspective

During the first plenary session at the 2013 ERF Annual Conference, Jean-Philippe Platteau, (University of Namur and University of Oxford), addressed the origins and roles of Islamist movements. According to him, a glimpse into the historical perspective is essential in order to assess Islamism, the emergence of Islamist movements, their role and their future.

According to Prof. Platteau, three main aspects characterize Islamist movements.

Looking at the definition of a reformist movement, the scripturalist approach to the holy text seems to be the major landmark; there is no freedom in text interpretation. The second characteristic is the puritanical dimension, or the idea that a moral decline is the source of social disorder. Thirdly comes the millenarian and messianic aspect of being the source of a big change in the society bringing happiness and harmony to the society.

According to Platteau, these characteristics are not specific to Islam; American Protestantism and evangelical churches proved to share the same characteristics throughout history. Millenarian movements have been observed throughout history, being the source of several movements in different times and locations. However, what is unique about Islam is the absence of an ecclesiastical authority or structure, Shi’ism in Iran being the exception to the rule. An environment is thus enabled for a diversity of views, interpretation and implementation of Islam; “everybody can have his fatwa” stated Platteau. Such a nature creates an anarchical state that is; according to him, very typical of Islam although not specific to it.

Why do Islamist movements exist?

In spite of making the distinction between endogenously created movements, deriving from the civil society, and the ones that are state-engineered, Prof. Platteau highlighted that their emergence, survival and success depend in both cases on their incentives and motivation. Taking a glimpse into Islamic history, one realizes that many of puritanical movements have arisen in attempts to consolidate power, to unify territories or to build-up nations. A modern example proving this point is Saudi Arabia, united by the Wahhabi puritanical ideology. For Platteau, Wahhabisme was chosen for being different to existing Islamic ideologies, as Saudi Arabia was building-up its own specific identity.

Corruption, with all that emerge with it from authoritarianism, to despotism and political oppression, appears to be one more reason behind the existence of Islamist movements. Emergence of revivalist movements is a logical consequence to these, aiming to replace the existing corrupt elitist regime by a millenarian society.

Additionally, Prof. Platteau highlighted the contribution of the existing regime to the emergence and amplification of Islamist movements. Mubarak’s Egypt provides a clear example of this dynamic, with the regime having used Islamist movements, not limited to Muslim Brotherhood, to combat the left wing.

Finally, responding to external aggressions also contributed to the birth of such movements: “Many revivalist movements date back to the colonial period. In many countries, like Sudan, Indonesia, India, they were born as resistance movements”, confirmed Prof. Platteau.

In conclusion, Prof. Platteau affirms that “if you don’t want to have these movements, you have to prevent the cause from which they have arisen. Otherwise, once they are there they are difficult to address”.

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